Will new gen grocery stores cut waste down to zero?

Photo: Zero Waste Market
Jul 08, 2016

In response to customer concerns, the grocery industry has been trying to find creative ways to limit what gets thrown out and winds up in landfills. Big name natural grocers such as Whole Foods as well as conventional supermarket operators such as Kroger have been exploring new ways to reduce waste, while startups have been jumping in to reuse or redistribute otherwise unsellable food products.

Government is concerned too. On the legal side, some municipalities have begun restricting the use of plastic bags to reduce the number that end up discarded in parking lots and sidewalks. But the packaging food comes in poses its own challenges for grocers that want to go green. One new grocery store launching in Brooklyn aims at getting its waste down to absolute zero.

The store, prospectively called The Fillery, harkens back to a time when there wasn’t so much garbage generated because there wasn’t as much packaging. According to The Huffington Post, Sarah Metz intends to launch the store later this year, allowing customers to bring their own glass jars and cloth bags for dry goods, as well as offering milk in refillable glass containers and other products in refillable screw-topped containers. A similar outfit, Zero Waste Market, is slated to open this fall in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The model resembles what one can sometimes find at food co-ops. But with the greening trend continuing, such an approach to reusability could have a broader impact. Whole Foods, for instance, states on their website that the chain hopes to become a Zero Waste store in 2016, defined as diverting 90 percent of their waste away from landfills or incineration. Earlier this year the chain evoked viral ire over selling pre-packaged oranges due to the perceived wastefulness.

Kroger just announced plans to keep 90 percent of the waste from its stores out of landfills by 2020. The company also pledged to reduce the amount of plastic used in its private label brand packaging while increasing its use of recycled material.

Changing the packaging, rather than doing away with it entirely, is another way consumer-facing industries have been meeting customers’ growing sensitivity to environmental issues. A report by Greener Package indicates that the green packaging market is expecting a 6.2 percent compound annual growth rate increase from 2015 to 2021.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will a waste-free grocery model with minimal to no disposable packaging catch on beyond the boutique grocery space? What should mainstream grocers watch for in the efforts of such stores such as The Fillery and Zero Waste Market?

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"Yes we want less waste but I doubt very much my customers are going to bring in their glass jugs to get their milk."

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15 Comments on "Will new gen grocery stores cut waste down to zero?"

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Max Goldberg

Good for all of the grocers who are tackling the issue of waste, whether or not they achieve 90 percent or go totally waste-free. With packaging being in the hands of manufacturers, and with consumer preferences, I don’t think the major chains will achieve zero waste, but every effort is welcome.

Tony Orlando
Waste-free sounds nice to the folks who want to promote this but it is impossible to do, and yes we want less waste but I doubt very much my customers are going to bring in their glass jugs to get their milk. Technology in packaging is getting better and biodegradable packaging for milk and many other foods is becoming more commonplace, which is all good. These trends are huge with foodies, who want their pepper salad in Napa Valley to be picked that morning from the farmer down the road, again, which is nice, but in Northeast Ohio in January, that is not an option. A common sense approach to this is what all of us currently do, and lets keep government out it, at all levels, as their solutions end up costing stores extra burdens and money they can not afford to spend. I give all my produce trim to farmers for their livestock and recycle our cardboard, which helps a lot, but I love the plastic bags at the checkout, and would be… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel

While we might never get to waste-free, we can go a lot further. My local Kroger and Publix have stopped packaging fruits and vegetables (aside from berries) so that we can buy what we need. But they freak out a bit when I don’t separate my produce into their own bags — to which I just tell them I only need one bag for all my produce. I’m washing it when I get home and I assume it’s been touched by lots of people before I buy it.

Ian Percy

Thumbs up from me. I’m 100 percent with you Stephen though I wish a mere washing of produce were enough. Unfortunately what will really harm us is already “in” the plant, not “on” it. See my comment below. Some producers even brag about using “gray water” to irrigate their crops which is absorbed INTO the plant. If we listed what was in that gray water and where it actually came from, we’d never eat again. Hopefully soon we’ll stop the madness.

Ian Percy

I couldn’t be more thrilled or supportive of this movement. It’s like we are finally waking up to what we’re doing to our environment. Let’s hope this catches on widely and wildly. Reducing waste is a noble goal but even beyond that, humankind simply must stop polluting everything it touches. I think it’s all part of the same picture.

For example, this fits with the growing chemical-free movement. Elsewhere recently I wrote an article about how we are under a 24/7 assault by man-made environmental factors. No matter what we eat, drink or do, including breathing, we are assaulted by chemicals. One study found out that only 1 percent of the pesticides sprayed on crops hits the intended target, 99 percent just goes into the air we breathe. Another study of common breakfast foods found that half had measurable glyphosate weedkiller. Eat up kids, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

We are responsible for this planet and are screwing it up royally.

Ryan Mathews

These are baby steps in the right direction. The idea of eliminating waste is great, but utopian. My supermarket encourages people to bring their own bags, discounts the purchase if you do and the vast majority of shoppers still ask for plastic bags for their orders.

True waste-free food chains wouldn’t have any packaging beyond what was needed to ship the product and ensure its safety, but I don’t see gravity-fed cereal bins replacing branded product anytime soon.

The key is for retailers to keep trying and not get frustrated when customers opt for convenience over the environment.

Ben Ball

Like the commentators before me, I love this idea and applaud all efforts made by both specialty and chain retailers — especially the chains since this will be so much more difficult, but with so much more impact, when they do something. Whether zero waste will prove to be achievable or sustainable (less likely) is actually a pretty simple question. Consumers always act based on perceived utility. The amount of effort/cost they are willing to bear on an ongoing basis for a benefit (in this case the environmental impact of zero waste) is directly proportional to the perceived utility they associate with it. For most consumers this will mean they won’t embrace zero waste options unless and until they present a cost savings they consider to be worth the hassle. And this will be a hassle. I would have trouble achieving a true “zero waste food footprint” if I lived full-time on my farm, only eating food I grow or otherwise harvest. Doing it in suburban America is going to be a real challenge.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Reducing waste is a great goal but 100 percent waste-free is probably not attainable. The retailers can not control manufacturers’ packaging, food safety is an issue and bringing a collection of containers with you to use on the way home from work is not convenient. Balancing convenience, safety and a waste-free goal is not easy.

Ralph Jacobson

Packaging waste is one thing. And it’s still a relatively small slice of the consumer market that has strong sentiment about it. Food waste is a whole other issue. Where studies show anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of all food globally goes to waste, U.S. grocers have been working hard to address this for years. Still, I’m not certain there is even enough public outcry for this challenge to make an impact on potential revenue and/or loyalty growth. Of course, these are very noble causes to pursue, so grocers should continue to do their great work across the industry. I’m just not sure getting to zero waste will be enough of a “hook” to grab many more shoppers, bottom line.

Brittain Ladd

The trend I have seen growing outside of the United States is the ever-increasing acceptance of buying ready-made meals. In essence, instead of shopping for ingredients to make meals, everything has been done for you; simply heat and eat. The value of ready-made meals is that there is simply less waste. The packaging, for example, is all bio-friendly.

I believe we will see this trend increase in the U.S. especially as more consumers choose to shop for groceries online. In an effort to compete, grocery retailers will increase space in their stores for sections devoted to ready-made meals. We will also see convenience stores increase their use of ready-made meals as well utilizing advanced sales and operations planning to have meals available based on the time of day, day of week. I have seen this used in Taiwan and Japan to great affect.

Ed Rosenbaum

Yes, lets agree this is something we idealistically want. But lets also attempt to agree this is not going to happen. There are too many hands involved in too many packaging products to get down to zero. Maybe this is something the government should not be involved with and allow those at the top of the “food chains” to work out. Maybe that will make things easier as far as landfills are concerned. But let’s also remember, we want this done at a price that will always be lower than what we are paying now. Said sarcastically.

James Tenser
We call them “consumer packaged goods” because the stuff on the outside is often inextricable from the stuff on the inside. Elimination of all packaging is not merely a utopian ideal for waste reduction, it’s a re-imagination of the entire business model. Can you imagine buying an unwrapped Snicker’s bar from a bin? Or is that a Milky Way that a previous customer moved by mistake? (Gee I hope the kid’s hands were clean.) Is the milk in that re-used glass jar organic or 2% or vanilla almond? How is the cashier supposed to tell the difference? So yeah, I do my best to remember to bring my cloth grocery bags in from the car. And I buy some bulk foods like nuts and rolled oats (that come home in plastic bags). But packaging serves several essential purposes: Assurance of the authenticity of the product is one. Safety and cleanliness is another. A billboard for branding and required product description is yet another. You simply can’t have self-service mass merchandising without it. How and how… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

My impression of this is it’s good intentions untempered by reality. Much like a person who spends 50¢ in gas driving to save 10¢ on something, there seems to be no effort to match costs to benefits (or even measure them).

Not to mention all the sanitation and health/safety issues coming from self (read: amateur) packaging.

Cynical as it may sound, what mainstream grocers should do is publicize how great they think the idea is, and then forget about it.

Tom Redd

In my complex mind — no way. This is for the small place that wants to be unique to a small % of our population that can afford their foods and the zero luxury. With Kroger and Walmart at work on this, we will see waste reduce — but let’s be real. The US of A population counts as a small # of the people on the globe. So if all groceries ran to this zero of zero model, how much would it REALLY help the global problem of waste?

Shilpa Rao

This trend of reducing waste is here to continue. Already many cities are charging for plastic bags, encouraging customers to bring their own bags. However, this is more regulatory requirement. As the technology develops for cleaner and more sustainable pacakaging, retailers are likely to adopt waste reduction pacakaging alternatives. However, it will take time before we go to zero waste.

"Yes we want less waste but I doubt very much my customers are going to bring in their glass jugs to get their milk."

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